Oryx and Crake (Atwood)

Oryx and Crake 
Margaret Atwood, 2003
Knopf Doubleday
378 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780385721677


Summary
Margaret Atwood's new novel is so utterly compelling, so prescient, so relevant, so terrifyingly-all-too-likely-to-be-true, that readers may find their view of the world forever changed after reading it. This is Margaret Atwood at the absolute peak of her powers. For readers of Oryx and Crake, nothing will ever look the same again.

The narrator of Atwood's riveting novel calls himself Snowman. When the story opens, he is sleeping in a tree, wearing an old bedsheet, mourning the loss of his beloved Oryx and his best friend Crake, and slowly starving to death. He searches for supplies in a wasteland where insects proliferate and pigoons and wolvogs ravage the pleeblands, where ordinary people once lived, and the Compounds that sheltered the extraordinary. As he tries to piece together what has taken place, the narrative shifts to decades earlier. How did everything fall apart so quickly? Why is he left with nothing but his haunting memories? Alone except for the green-eyed Children of Crake, who think of him as a kind of monster, he explores the answers to these questions in the double journey he takes - into his own past, and back to Crake's high-tech bubble-dome, where the Paradice Project unfolded and the world came to grief.

With breathtaking command of her shocking material, and with her customary sharp wit and dark humour, Atwood projects us into an outlandish yet wholly believable realm populated by characters who will continue to inhabit our dreams long after the last chapter. (From the publisher.)

This is the first book in Atwood's dystopian trilogy: the second is The Year of the Flood (2009); the third is MaddAddam (2013)



Author Bio
Birth—November 18, 1939
Where—Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
Education—B.A., University of Toronto; M.A. Radcliffe; Ph.D., Harvard University
Awards—Governor General's Award; Booker Prize; Giller Award
Currently—lives in Toronto, Canada

Margaret Eleanor Atwood, is a Canadian poet, novelist, literary critic, essayist, and environmental activist. She is among the most-honoured authors of fiction in recent history. She is a winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award and Prince of Asturias Award for Literature, has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize five times, winning once, and has been a finalist for the Governor General's Award several times, winning twice. She is also a founder of the Writers' Trust of Canada, a non-profit literary organization that seeks to encourage Canada's writing community.

Early life
Born in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, Atwood is the second of three children of Margaret Dorothy (nee Killam), a former dietitian and nutritionist, and Carl Edmund Atwood, an entomologist. Due to her father’s ongoing research in forest entomology, Atwood spent much of her childhood in the backwoods of Northern Quebec and traveling back and forth between Ottawa, Sault Ste. Marie, and Toronto. She did not attend school full-time until she was in grade 8. She became a voracious reader of literature, Dell pocketbook mysteries, Grimm's Fairy Tales, Canadian animal stories, and comic books. She attended Leaside High School in Leaside, Toronto, and graduated in 1957.

Atwood began writing at the age of six and realized she wanted to write professionally when she was 16. In 1957, she began studying at Victoria College in the University of Toronto, where she published poems and articles in Acta Victoriana, the college literary journal. Her professors included Jay Macpherson and Northrop Frye. She graduated in 1961 with a Bachelor of Arts in English (honours) and a minor in philosophy and French.

In late 1961, after winning the E.J. Pratt Medal for her privately printed book of poems, Double Persephone, she began graduate studies at Harvard's Radcliffe College with a Woodrow Wilson fellowship. She obtained a master's degree (MA) from Radcliffe in 1962 and pursued further graduate studies at Harvard University for two years but did not finish her dissertation, “The English Metaphysical Romance." She has taught at the University of British Columbia (1965), Sir George Williams University in Montreal (1967–68), the University of Alberta (1969–70), York University in Toronto (1971–72), the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa (1985), where she was visiting M.F.A. Chair, and New York University, where she was Berg Professor of English.

Personal life
In 1968, Atwood married Jim Polk; they were divorced in 1973. She formed a relationship with fellow novelist Graeme Gibson soon after and moved to a farm near Alliston, Ontario, north of Toronto, where their daughter was born in 1976. The family returned to Toronto in 1980.

Other genres
While she is best known for her work as a novelist, she has also published fifteen books of poetry. Many of her poems have been inspired by myths and fairy tales, which have been interests of hers from an early age. Atwood has published short stories in Tamarack Review, Alphabet, Harper's, CBC Anthology, Ms., Saturday Night, and many other magazines. She has also published four collections of stories and three collections of unclassifiable short prose works.

Atwood has also produced several children's books, including Princess Prunella and the Purple Peanut (1995) and Rude Ramsay and the Roaring Radishes (2003)—delicious alliterative delights that introduce a wealth of new vocabulary to young readers

Speculative fiction vs. sci-fic
The Handmaid's Tale received the first Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1987. The award is given for the best science fiction novel that was first published in the United Kingdom during the previous year. It was also nominated for the 1986 Nebula Award, and the 1987 Prometheus Award, both science fiction awards.

Atwood was at one time offended at the suggestion that The Handmaid's Tale or Oryx and Crake were science fiction, insisting to the UK's Guardian that they were speculative fiction instead: "Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen." She told the Book of the Month Club: "Oryx and Crake is a speculative fiction, not a science fiction proper. It contains no intergalactic space travel, no teleportation, no Martians."

She clarified her meaning on the difference between speculative and science fiction, admitting that others use the terms interchangeably: "For me, the science fiction label belongs on books with things in them that we can't yet do.... [S]peculative fiction means a work that employs the means already to hand and that takes place on Planet Earth." She said that science fiction narratives give a writer the ability to explore themes in ways that realistic fiction cannot.

Environmentalism
Although Atwood's politics are commonly described as being left-wing, she has indicated in interviews that she considers herself a Red Tory in the historical sense of the term. Atwood, along with her partner Graeme Gibson, is a member of the Green Party of Canada (GPC) and has strong views on environmental issues. She and Gibson are the joint honorary presidents of the Rare Bird Club within BirdLife International. She has been chair of the Writers' Union of Canada and president of PEN Canada, and is currently a vice president of PEN International. In a Globe and Mail editorial, she urged Canadians to vote for any other party to stop a Conservative majority.

During the debate in 1987 over a free trade agreement between Canada and the United States, Atwood spoke out against the deal, and wrote an essay opposing the agreement.

Atwood celebrated her 70th birthday at a gala dinner at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, marking the final stop of her international tour to promote The Year of the Flood. She stated that she had chosen to attend the event because the city has been home to one of Canada's most ambitious environmental reclamation programs: "When people ask if there's hope (for the environment), I say, if Sudbury can do it, so can you. Having been a symbol of desolation, it's become a symbol of hope." (Adapted from Wikipedia. Retrieved 9/17/2013.)

Book Reviews 
This is the intention of the novel: to goad us to thought by making us screen in the mind a powerful vision of competence run amok. What Atwood could not have intended, and what is no less alarming and exponentially more urgent, is the resonance between her rampaging plague scenario and the recent global outbreak of SARS. Moving from book to newspaper, or newspaper to book, the reader realizes, with a jolt, how the threshold of difference has been lowered in recent months. The force of Atwood's imagining grows in direct proportion to our rising anxiety level. And so does the importance of her implicit caution.
Steve Bricket - New York Times


Set in a future some two generations hence, Oryx and Crake can hold its own against any of the 20th century's most potent dystopias—Brave New World, 1984, The Space Merchants—with regard to both dramatic impact and fertility of invention, while it leaves such lesser recent contenders as Paul Theroux and Doris Lessing in the dust.
Thomas M. Disch - Washington Post


A less talented writer might have preached. But Atwood entices with deadpan humor and wry asides from Snowman's sunbaked subconscious, commenting on the fall of civilization.
Jakie Pray - USA Today


Atwood has visited the future before, in her dystopian novel, The Handmaid's Tale. In her latest, the future is even bleaker. The triple whammy of runaway social inequality, genetic technology and catastrophic climate change, has finally culminated in some apocalyptic event. As Jimmy, apparently the last human being on earth, makes his way back to the RejoovenEsencecompound for supplies, the reader is transported backwards toward that cataclysmic event, its full dimensions gradually revealed. Jimmy grew up in a world split between corporate compounds (gated communities metastasized into city-states) and pleeblands (unsafe, populous and polluted urban centers). His best friend was "Crake," the name originally his handle in an interactive Net game, Extinctathon. Even Jimmy's mother—who ran off and joined an ecology guerrilla group when Jimmy was an adolescent—respected Crake, already a budding genius. The two friends first encountered Oryx on the Net; she was the eight-year-old star of a pedophilic film on a site called HottTotts. Oryx's story is a counterpoint to Jimmy and Crake's affluent adolescence. She was sold by her Southeast Asian parents, taken to the city and eventually made into a sex "pixie" in some distant country. Jimmy meets Oryx much later—after college, after Crake gets Jimmy a job with ReJoovenEsence. Crake is designing the Crakers—a new, multicolored placid race of human beings, smelling vaguely of citron. He's procured Oryx to be his personal assistant. She teaches the Crakers how to cope in the world and goes out on secret missions. The mystery on which this riveting, disturbing tale hinges is how Crake and Oryx and civilization vanished, and how Jimmy—who also calls himself "the Snowman," after that other rare, hunted specimen, the Abominable Snowman—survived. Chesterton once wrote of the "thousand romances that lie secreted in The Origin of Species." Atwood has extracted one of the most hair-raising of them, and one of the most brilliant.
Publishers Weekly


The doyenne of Canadian literature (she's won both a Booker and a Giller Prize), the versatile Atwood has an uncanny ability to write in a number of literary genres. Like The Handmaid's Tale, her latest work is set in a near future that is all too realistic and almost too terrifying to contemplate. Having once led a life of comfort and self-indulgence, Jimmy, now known as Snowman, has survived an ecological disaster that has destroyed the world as we know it. As he struggles to function without everything he once knew, including time, Snowman reflects on the past, on his relationships with two characters named Oryx and Crake, and on the role of each individual in the destruction of the natural world. From its opening scene, in which the children of Crake scavenge through debris, to its horrifying conclusion, this novel challenges the reader, cleverly pairing familiar aspects of the world with parts that have been irrevocably changed. A powerful and perturbing glimpse into a dark future, this is Atwood's impassioned plea for responsible management of our human, scientific, and natural resources and a novel that will cast long and lingering shadows in the reader's mind, well after the book is closed. —Caroline Hallsworth, City of Greater Sudbury, Ont.
Library Journal


Environmental unconcern, genetic engineering, and bioterrorism have created the hollowed-out, haunted future world of Atwood's ingenious and disturbing 11th novel, bearing several resemblances to The Handmaid's Tale (1985). Protagonist Jimmy, a.k.a. "Snowman," is perhaps the only living "remnant" (i.e., human unaltered by science) in a devastated lunar landscape where he lives by his remaining wits, scavenges for flotsam surviving from past civilizations, dodges man-eating mutant predators, and remembers. In an equally dark parallel narrative, Atwood traces Jimmy's personal history, beginning with a bonfire in which diseased livestock are incinerated, observed by five-year-old Jimmy and his father, a "genographer" employed by, first, OrganInc Farms, then, the sinister Helthwyzer Corporation. One staggering invention follows another, as Jimmy mourns the departure of his mother (a former microbiologist who clearly foresaw the Armageddon her colleagues were building), goes through intensive schooling with his brilliant best friend Glenn (who renames himself Crake), and enjoys such lurid titillations as computer games that simulate catastrophe and global conflict (e.g., "Extinctathon," "Kwiktime Osama") and Web sites featuring popular atrocities (e.g., "hedsoff.com"). Surfing a kiddie-porn site, Jimmy encounters the poignant figure of Oryx, a Southeast Asian girl apprenticed (i.e., sold) to a con-man, then a sex-seller (in sequences as scary and revolting as anything in contemporary fiction). Oryx will inhabit Jimmy's imagination forever, as will the perverse genius Crake, who rises from the prestigious Watson-Crick Institute to a position of literally awesome power at the RejoovenEsenseCompound, where he works on a formula for immortality, creates artificial humans (the "Children of Crake"), and helps produce the virus that's pirated and used to start a plague that effectively decimates the world's population. And Atwood (The Blind Assassin, 2000, etc.) brings it all together in a stunning surprise climax. A landmark work of speculative fiction, comparable to A Clockwork Orange, Brave New World, and Russian revolutionary Zamyatin's We. Atwood has surpassed herself.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions 
1. Oryx and Crake includes many details that seem futuristic, but are in fact already apparent in our world. What parallels were you able to draw between the items in the world of the novel and those in your own?

2 . Margaret Atwood coined many words and brand names while writing the novel. In what way has technology changed your vocabulary over the past five years?

3. The game "Extinctathon" emerges as a key component in the novel. Jimmy and Crake also play "Barbarian Stomp" and "Blood and Roses." What comparable video games do you know of? What is your opinion of arcades that feature virtual violence? Discuss the advantages and dangers of virtual reality. Is the novel form itself a sort of virtual reality?

4. If you were creating the game "Blood and Roses," what other "Blood" items would you add? What other "Rose" items?

5. If you had the chance to fabricate an improved human being, would you do it? If so, what features would you choose to incorporate? Why would these be better than what we've got? Your model must of course be biologically viable.

6. The pre-catastrophic society in Oryx and Crake is fixated on physical perfection and longevity, much as our own society is. Discuss the irony of these quests, both within the novel and in our own society.

7. One aspect of the novel's society is the virtual elimination of the middle class. Economic and intellectual disparities, as well as the disappearance of safe public space, allow for few alternatives: People live either in the tightly controlled Compounds of the elites, or in the more open but seedier and more dangerous Pleeblands. Where would your community find itself in the world of Oryx and Crake?

8. Snowman soon discovers that despite himself he's invented a new creation myth, simply by trying to think up comforting answers to the "why" questions of the Children of Crake. In Part Seven-the chapter entitled "Purring"-Crake claims that "God is a cluster of neurons," though he's had trouble eradicating religious experiences without producing zombies. Do you agree with Crake? Do Snowman's origin stories negate or enhance your views on spirituality and how it evolves among various cultures?

9. How might the novel change if narrated by Oryx? Do any similarities exist between her early life and Snowman's? Do you always believe what she says?

10. Why does Snowman feel compelled to protect the benign Crakers, who can't understand him and can never be his close friends? Do you believe that the Crakers would be capable of survival in our own society?

11. In the world of Oryx and Crake, almost everything is for sale, and a great deal of power is now in the hands of large corporations and their private security forces. There are already more private police in North America than there are public ones. What are the advantages of such a system? What are the dangers?

12. In what ways does the dystopia of Oryx and Crake compare to those depicted in novels such as Brave New World, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and in Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale? What is the difference between speculative fiction—which Atwood claims to write—and science fiction proper?

13. The book has two epigraphs, one from Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels and one from Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse. Why do you think these were chosen?

14. The ending of the novel is open, allowing for tantalizing speculation. How do you envision Snowman's future? What about the future of humanity—both within the novel, and outside its pages?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

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